New Year's Day, 1781 — The Day the Rebels Rebelled

By Bob Sullivan

Bad news travels fast. During December, it spread very quickly through the Pennsylvania troops encamped at a snowy and cold Morristown, New Jersey. The Pennsylvania troops had found out that the enlistments they signed or made their mark upon three years ago were not up. Unlike many other Continental troops, their terms were not going to expire on January 1. For unlike other Army enlistment forms, theirs stated that the enlistment period was "during the War". The Pennsylvania Line was in for the duration, while others were preparing to go home. Three years of fighting were not enough — they would have to endure more. Frustrated, upset, and angry, the troops refused to muster on January 1. Instead, they assembled on their own and began to march to Philadelphia to take their grievances to Congress. The Rebels had rebelled.

The story of the Pennsylvania mutiny of 1781 is well known to students of the American Revolution. Discouraged by lack of pay, bad conditions, and the prospect of staying in for the duration of the war caused this emotional outburst. Confronted by officers on the way to Philadelphia, the troops spoke and vented their frustration. However, in a curious twist to Patriotism, they turned over British spies that they had captured to the officers. This was done to demonstrate their loyalty to the American cause. They still believed in the ideals of the Revolution. They just felt that they had been singled out for unfair treatment.

The outcome of the Pennsylvania mutiny of 1781 came from that meeting. The officers presented most of the grievances to Congress, and the result was that all Pennsylvania troops were discharged in 1781. Each man's case was reviewed, and if it was determined that he was in for the duration, he was re-enlisted in the newly formed Pennsylvania Battalion. This battalion was sent South, and distinguished itself in the 1781 campaigns there.

The question that arises from this famous incident is "Why?" Why did the Pennsylvania Line think that they had enlisted for only three years? Why were the men surprised to learn that they had, in fact, enlisted for the period "during the War"? To properly answer these questions, it is necessary to look at the enlistment forms. There is a general belief that the paperwork of the Continental Army was crude at best, when it existed at all. The facts are that there was a high degree of sophistication in the paperwork used, and a study of the enlistment forms used by the Continental Army may solve the questions behind the Pennsylvania mutiny.

Army Enlistment Forms

At the beginning of the war, Continental Army enlistments were for one calendar year. If you enlisted in 1775, the term of your enlistment would end on December 31, 1775. Enlistment forms from 1775 bear this out. Figure 1 is a photocopy of a 1775 enlistment form. Note the vagueness of the form. It was difficult to determine into what exact force you were enlisting.

The obvious problem of having your entire army disband on December 31 led Washington to plead with Congress for longer enlistments. Congressional fears of standing armies, and a general lack of funds for a professional fighting force led to a rejection of Washington's request. However, in 1776, some troops were enlisted for three years, as shown in Figure 2. This figure is a 1776 enlistment form. There are two interesting facts that can be ascertained from the enlistment. One is that even though Congress did not authorize three-year enlistments, this form is for that length of time. For the other interesting fact, note the date — July 16, 1776. Yet the form has "United States of America" printed on it. Just twelve days after announcing independence, the American Army paperwork reflected it. Again, though, this form is a rather simple one, merely getting the enlistee to sign his name or make his mark.

With the defeats around New York in the fall of 1776, enlistments were off and states could not fill their quotas of troops. Therefore, Congress authorized a bounty of three months pay, a total of 20 dollars, to all of those who would sign up. Also, since independence was now a reality, some sort of loyalty oath would be needed from the enlistee. Figure 3 shows a 1777 enlistment, containing each of the three parts. The top paragraph is the actually enlisting agreement, and calls for the enlistee's signature below it. The middle paragraph contains the bounty agreement showing the amount and again calling for a signature (or mark). The signature here indicated that the enlistee received his bounty. The bottom paragraph contained the oath stating that the enlistee would swear (or affirm) allegiance to the new nation. While all of this seems very logical, the question might be raised as to the design of the form itself. Where did it come from? The answer may well lie in Figure 4. Note that this enlistment is laid out in the exact same manner as the 1777 enlistment. However, this enlistment is for British provincial troops in the Seven Years War, and actually dates from 1762. So, the three part form is not new, but merely updated from the last war.

The 1777 Pennsylvania Enlistment

So what does all of this have to do with the Pennsylvania mutiny of 1781? Note in Figure 3, the generic army enlistment form of 1777, there is a statement in the enlistment agreement that the term of the enlistment is "for three years". Now, refer to the Figure 5, the Pennsylvania enlistment of 1777. At first glance, the forms appear to be exactly alike. Note the term of enlistment on the Pennsylvania form. It is "during the War". Note, too, that both enlistments, Figures 3 and 5, are enlistments of illiterate men. How many of these men knew what they were signing? Estimates of illiteracy in the Continental Army run as high as 80 percent. So we have two men enlisting in the army within 36 days of each other. One enlists in Colonel Thomas Price's Continental regiment for three years: 1778, 1779, 1780. One enlists in the Twelfth Pennsylvania regiment for the rest of the war. Neither one of these men can read the paper they just signed. And three years later, on New Year's Day in 1781, one of these men goes home, and one mutinies.

Clearly, this example only compares two pieces of paper. It would satisfy detail-oriented researchers if there were dozens of these examples. Unfortunately, Continental Army paperwork is not as voluminous as we would like it to be. But the facts are there: generic enlistment forms of 1777 were for three years, and Pennsylvania enlistment forms were for the duration. It is not necessary for us to determine why there was a difference. All we know for sure is that there was a difference, and that difference was a contributing factor to the mutiny of 1781. The questions stated at the beginning of the article were "Why did the Pennsylvania Line think that they had enlisted for only three years?" and "Why were the men surprised to learn that they had, in fact, enlisted for the period 'during the War'?" It seems obvious that the troops did not realize there was a difference in the forms. The troops were deceived by the people who enlisted them. Whether or not this deception was planned is not for this article to decide.

The Resolution of the Mutiny

As stated earlier, after their grievances were addressed, the troops were discharged. One of the forms used to record these discharges is shown in Figure 6. Actually, this form was taller and was signed by General Anthony Wayne. The part of the form containing his signature has been cut off, probably by an autograph collector. The soldier's cases were reviewed individually by an inquiry board, and if the soldier's original enlistment was determined to be for the duration, the soldier was re-enlisted into the newly formed Pennsylvania battalion. These enlistments dated from July 1, 1781. A copy of one of these enlistments is shown in Figure 7. Interestingly enough, this form also enlisted an illiterate soldier.


The purpose of this article is to bring to light some of the paperwork of the Continental army, and to show how a study of this paperwork provides many valuable clues to the day-to-day existence of the Continental Army soldier. While the author does not mean to imply that the enlistment forms are solely responsible for the Pennsylvania mutiny of 1781, he does believe that they contributed significantly to the general discontent of the troops.

Copyright © 1995 Bob Sullivan. All rights reserved.